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Benefits of sustainable forest management

Published: 4/3/2020 2:23:44 PM
Modified: 4/3/2020 2:23:32 PM

We read Bill McKibben’s recent Recorder My Turn column which advocates for passage of two bills in the Massachusetts legislature as “simple” steps to helping solve the problem. Unfortunately, these bills greatly oversimplify a complex issue.

McKibben first mentions H.897, which would largely prohibit any forest management activities on state-owned forestlands. DCR State Forest lands are zoned as parklands and reserves (60% of total acreage where forest management is effectively prohibited), or woodlands. Woodlands are managed for a variety of objectives, including wildlife habitat, water quality, increased forest resilience, and forest products. H.897 would put all these woodlands into the “reserves” category and go well beyond state forests to include wildlife management areas overseen by MassWildlife and watershed lands overseen by the Division of Water Supply Protection.

H.897 permanently bans one type of forest management — the creation of early successional forest habitat. These “young forest” habitats are critical to many species of songbirds and mammals who are threatened or endangered in Massachusetts, and we don’t have enough of it because we suppress the natural processes — especially fire and flooding — that creates it. Prohibiting MassWildlife from creating this habitat in their wildlife management areas makes implementing the State Wildlife Action Plan impossible. 

Carbon in forests is a complex, multifaceted issue with many tradeoffs. Choosing to manage for carbon alone can result in unforeseen consequences for wildlife, water quality, and more. Given this, it should come as no surprise that leading statewide environmental organizations, land trusts, wildlife conservation groups, and heavily forested towns have all opposed H.897.

McKibben also advocates for H.853, which would eliminate wood heat from the Alternative Portfolio Standard (APS), a renewable heating initiative. He states that “large quantities of fine particulates and other air pollutants” are emitted by modern wood heating systems. But the ultra-modern pellet or chip boilers required in the APS emit 99% less particulate matter per million BTUs of heat generated than older wood stoves. A forthcoming study of air quality around schools using these ultra-modern systems conducted by UMass Amherst found in its preliminary conclusions that the emissions of these systems had a smaller effect on air quality than the older oil heating systems they typically replace. Installers are now generally adding emissions control devices like electrostatic precipitators by default, which remove up to 99% of the remaining particulate matter, making them super-clean.

McKibben continues, “While in theory, forest regrowth would eventually be able to absorb the carbon released from combustion, it would take decades to over a century to achieve parity with fossil fuel emissions. …” This is simply false when applied to modern wood heat (which is what H.853 addresses). We’ve seen a troubling tendency among wood heat opponents to conflate studies of biomass power with modern wood heat. Massachusetts commissioned research to look into this very issue, and the Manomet study found that using forest residues from a timber harvest for modern wood heat repaid its “carbon debt” in less than a decade and then offered a “carbon dividend” compared to fossil fuels.

We had issues with the Manomet study, however. The study imagined a section of forest in isolation, and then used in its model the complete clear-cutting of that forest. It didn’t reflect forestry practices in Massachusetts, and correctly accounting for those practices is critical to get the most accurate results. Using the same prestigious lab to do the calculations, the study was essentially re-run, but this time they measured actual forest management practices in New England and emissions from harvesting and manufacturing pellets. The peer-reviewed study in the journal Energy found a 50% carbon footprint reduction for modern wood heat compared to fossil fuels.

This science is why many institutions of higher education, including McKibben’s own Middlebury College, moved to modern wood heating on their campuses from heavy fuel oil. It’s why the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was supportive of forest management and wood heat in its recent Special Report on Climate Change and Land, saying the following: 

By providing long-term livelihoods for communities, sustainable forest management can reduce the extent of forest conversion to non-forest uses. Sustainable forest management aimed at providing timber, fiber, biomass, non-timber resources and other ecosystem functions and services, can lower greenhouse gas emissions and can contribute to adaptation.

It’s unfortunate that proponents of these bills have chosen to break with the IPCC on modern wood heat and forest management. We’re glad that Massachusetts legislators chose to send both of these bills to a special commission to study them further instead of advancing them.

Chris Egan is the executive director of the Massachusetts Forest Alliance of Marlborough.

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